Android Auto Test Drive: Meet Pioneer's In-Dash Unit

Android Auto is rolling out, and it's coming to major auto makers such as Acura, Chevy, Honda and more later this year. But you don't have to wait to get directions, voice actions, music, apps and more behind the wheel. You can outfit your vehicle now with Pioneer's NEX line of in-dash receivers.

To see how Android Auto performs in the real world, we took Pioneer's top-of-the-line $1,400 AVIC-8100 NEX receiver out for a spin in NYC. Note that Pioneer’s NEX line stars at $700, including three models supporting both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and two models that are CarPlay-only units.

Android Auto brings the mobile OS you know and love from your smartphone and onto the dashboard of your car. This lets you send texts, make calls, get turn-by-turn navigation and find points of interest without needing to learn a completely new system.

MORE: Android Auto FAQ: Everything You Need to Know

What you need is a phone running Android Lollipop (5.0 or higher), the Android Auto app (available for free from the Play Store), and a compatible head unit such as Pioneer's NEX receivers.

Equipped with all the essentials, it was time to finally get going.

Starting Android Auto is as simple as plugging your phone into the micro USB cable attached to the receiver. From there, Pioneer’s launches directly into a familiar-looking home screen complete with minimalist Android buttons, and non-skeuomorphic material design. Unfortunately, there's no wireless syncing option, for Android Auto or CarPlay, although the cord means that your phone will be getting charged at the same time.

You can navigate around the menu using the 7-inch touchscreen (a minimum screen size mandated for Android Auto by Google), or hit the microphone button in the top right to activate the Google Now-powered voice controls. The touch controls were as responsive as anything you'd find on a modern smartphone. The voice controls worked with natural language queries, without syntax heavy commands or language.

This comes into play the most when sending and receiving text messages, which never actually appear on the screen in order to prevent distractions. Instead, after receiving a notification, you can choose to have the Google voice read the message back, and transcribe your reply if you choose to respond.

If you forget to bring your phone, you’ll still have access to things like satellite radio, climate control (which Android Auto doesn’t touch), and media such as CD’s or MP3s.

You can also switch over to Apple CarPlay by disconnecting the microUSB cord and attaching an iPhone running iOS 8 or higher via a lightning cable and hitting a couple buttons on the touchscreen.

It’s about time cars took some cues from the computers in our pockets, and with Android Auto and CarPlay available from receivers like the AVIC-8100 NEX, you can get this tech in your life without needing to buy a new car.

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Sam Rutherford is a staff writer at Tom's Guide. Follow him@SamRutherford onTwitter, andTom's Guide onTwitter,Facebook andGoogle+.

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).